Cultural Difference in Business: Valerie Hoeks at TEDxHaarlem (Transcript)

It all started in the year 2000 I was 17 years old and I walked with my backpack through unpaved alleys in the outskirts of Beijing. I saw men cycling with entire closets and fridges on the back. I saw little kids running around half naked playing football, while their parents were trying to sell mushrooms and spinach sitting on the ground.

I saw a butcher behind his stand swatting flies that were trying to sit on his meat. Everybody was smiling, including this guy: literally sitting on his business, trying to sell second-hand computers. Why was I so touched by these Chinese people and their country? Was it the typical smile that covered up a road I didn’t know yet? Or was it the energy I felt when walking through such streets?

The only way to find out was to start learning Chinese and to start communicating with these people to learn more about their world because their world is so different from ours. I mean the way people behave, the way people interact.

Take this for example: (Video) a subway station in China during rush hour. Which one of you has been on a subway in China before? Then, you definitely know that getting on the subway in China is not easy, but getting off a subway in China is nearly impossible. People just use their elbows to squeeze themselves away and don’t give you any space to get out.

So, looking at such examples in combination with the fact that Chinese don’t really express their emotions as much as we do. You might believe that Chinese are tough and cold-hearted people but in fact for Chinese, warm relations are very important. You might even say that Maslow has it wrong. Relations are not in the third level of human needs, they are really a necessity in life. And I believe that we, Westerners, that tend to point our fingers at what happens in China, I believe that we can even learn from the Chinese and how they deal with others; and if we project that on our own behavior I think we can become better people. I even wish that every one of you has the opportunity to fly to China once in their life time, not just to climb the great wall but to really listen to the Chinese to what they have to say.

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Why is it that the relationship in China is so important? Still, nowadays, many Chinese are strongly influenced by the thoughts of a man named Confucius. His sayings are really like a Bible to the Chinese. I mean here, in the Western world, the Bible gains less and less support nowadays but in China his sayings are alive and kicking. (Chinese) Yǒupéngzìyuǎnfānglái, bùyìlèhū (English) It’s really a great pleasure to meet friends from afar.

So Confucius’ philosophy emphasizes personal and governmental morality, correctness of social relationships, just sincerity. He champions strong family loyalty, ancestor worship and respect for the elderly. So knowing this, you might understand why relationships are so important in China, and why you need to build relationships in order to become successful. Maybe some of you had that experience in China and then you might have heard of the word Guanxi. Guanxi literally means connections or relationships but actually it’s much more than that.

Guanxi is like how things gets done in China. Yes, Chinese are hesitant to deal with people they have never met and there is a long phase of introduction needed but once you reach the phase of mutual trust, you will find that Chinese are extremely loyal and faithful.

So, why is it that Guanxi is so different from how we know it? I mean there are many characteristics most of them strongly based on the philosophy of Confucius that cause these differences but there are three of them I would like to share with you tonight.

In China, if you want to maintain your relationship there’s one requirement referred to as reciprocal favor. “Rénqíng” in Chinese. If you ask someone for a favor, the favor needs to be returned, eventually. If you fail to repay, this is really seen as something unforgivable in China. So the more you ask from someone, the more you owe them and this is how Guanxi is like a never ending cycle of favors. Let me give you an example: I don’t know about you, but I barely remember the names of the teachers in my primary school. My Chinese colleagues and friends however, they visit their teachers, for tea– who are now in their 70s– for tea every Sunday afternoon, every week, since they graduated. This is for them a way to repay for what they have once received years ago. I love this, I love how the Chinese have this long-term view.

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So, where does this need for balance come from? Think of concepts like Yin and Yang and Feng Shui. I mean retailers like IKEA might use such concepts for commercial purposes, but in China these are really important values in life. I once sat with a business partner in his office in Beijing and we were discussing a certain subject but I felt my words didn’t really reach him. So he was just shuffling in his seat and at some point he interrupted me saying: “Valerie, I am sorry but do you mind swapping chairs, I am not comfortable sitting in this angle from the main entrance”. So, in line with this culture, there’s another concept that is very valuable that the Chinese refer to as “harmony”. Hé. Harmony stresses the preference of the smooth running of a society or a group.

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